If trade action is slow as the NHL's Feb. 26 deadline approaches, blame parity. And definitely blame parity if we don’t see much shuffling when it comes to defensemen when the trade freeze comes and goes.
As it stands, there are 46 defensemen who fit perfectly into the rental category, which is to say they’ll be unrestricted free agents set to hit the open market at season’s end. But of those defensemen, it’s difficult to pick out which belong to teams that will be sellers and buyers. That has little to do with it being more than a month before the deadline, either, because so many teams are in the race that not much stands to change in the next few weeks.
Take the top-end defenders, for example. Of course, there’s no way the Washington Capitals would let John Carlson walk at a time when their championship window is still open. He’s a no-brainer to strike off the rental list. But in terms of production, the next five best defenders are Mike Green, Jan Rutta, John Moore, Zdeno Chara and Dan Hamhuis. All but Green belong to teams that, at this point, could still be considered teams with playoff hopes, even if those hopes are looking increasingly slim in the case of Rutta’s Chicago Blackhawks.
Even the second-tier defenders, in terms of both production and ice time, don’t really belong to teams who are out of the race yet. Rearguards such as Brandon Manning, Calvin de Haan, Nick Holden, Kevin Bieksa, Francois Beauchemin and Thomas Hickey are all members of teams right on the playoff bubble. There’s no way the Philadelphia Flyers, New York Islanders, New York Rangers or Anaheim Ducks are ready to declare themselves sellers, nor does it appear any will be in a position to be obvious sellers come the deadline.
So, where does that leave the rental market for defensemen? It’s thin, with a couple top pieces and depth options the rest of the way. But that could make the pursuit of the top names all the more interesting as those in need attempt to outbid each other to get an edge come the post-season:
Mike Green, Detroit Red Wings
Green has done himself and the Red Wings quite the favor with his performance this season. On pace for nearly a 50-point campaign and doing so while skating top-pairing minutes on a much-improved — but still not playoff-contending — Detroit club has resulted in Green’s stock rising over the course of the season. That’s going to make Green, 32, a highly sought-after piece at the deadline, one who can be brought in by teams looking for offense from the blueline, which, frankly, is just about every team in playoff contention. You can never have too much production coming from the back end.
Beyond that, though, his play stands to drive up the price that teams seeking to bring Green aboard will have to pay, which is a big-time win for the rebuilding Red Wings. Ahead of the season, it may have been a stretch to suggest multiple high-round picks for Green, but it’s not out of the question for Detroit to land a second-round pick and more, especially if the Wings retain some of Green’s $6-million salary. If he produces as he has throughout this season, too, he’s going to be well worth the money, particularly if he can inject some life into any of the struggling power plays.
Jack Johnson, Columbus Blue Jackets
A week ago, Johnson was nowhere on the deadline rental radar, but his recent request for a trade puts him front and center in discussions leading up to the trade freeze. And make no mistake, teams will be calling about Johnson, who can fill a top-four spot on bluelines across the league. Ahead of the 2017-18 campaign, Johnson was a fixture of the Blue Jackets’ top pairing, averaging 24 minutes of ice time across the past five seasons, but he’s seen a significant dip in his role this season, averaging 19:24 through 46 games.
Johnson’s decrease in ice time has also impacted his offensive performance. A three-time 30-plus point rearguard, the 31-year-old has only two goals and seven points this season, putting him on pace to finish with 13 points. But in a bigger role, Johnson could very well bust out of his slump and provide both offensive production with some defensive prowess. Is he a true No. 1 rearguard? Not on most teams. But if he’s third on the depth chart, he can bring some serious value to a contending team. All things considered, his $4.36-million salary isn’t too hefty, either.
Erik Gudbranson, Vancouver Canucks
Several deadline buyers are going to pass on the top-tier defensemen come the deadline, but they may be interested in examining options to give their second pairing some ferocity and physicality or potentially look at ensuring their bottom pairing is solidified by the time the post-season rolls around. For those clubs, Gudbranson, 26, is a very good option.
While he has never quite been the top-pairing defenseman he was drafted to become, he’s a steady hand on the second pairing who can be tossed out against middle of the lineup players and excel. His size definitely makes him a fit in the more rough-and-tumble divisions, too. Gudbranson has never shied away from playing a physical game and he’ll throw his 6-foot-5 frame around.
What teams shouldn’t be expecting if they bring Gudbranson aboard, though, is much offense. He has one goal and three points in 32 games this season. He’s not going to come in and boost a power play or provide some spark on the blueline. But with a $3.5-million cap hit, he’s a cost-effective depth option, especially for teams looking to strengthen an already strong defense corps.
Johnny Oduya, Ottawa Senators
Oduya, 36, has bounced from Dallas to Chicago to Ottawa over the past three seasons and done so as a depth defenseman. And that’s exactly what he’ll be viewed as by GMs looking to add to the back end ahead of the playoffs. Gone are the days of Oduya playing 20-plus minutes per night and definitely in the past is the period in which he was a fixture of the top-four on a Stanley Cup-winning squad. But as a defenseman who plays a limited role on a third pairing and provides a coach with some certainty? Well, that might just be Oduya’s bread and butter at this stage of his career.
While he’s lost a step over the past few seasons, Oduya does still provide a certain puck-moving quality, as well. Don’t take that mean he’s going to produce points, however. That has never really been Oduya’s game, and it’s certainly not as he enters the back nine of his career. He has two goals and six points. Most attractive about Oduya might be the cost, though. His $1-million cap hit is easy to stomach. It should be noted, though, that he has a modified no-trade clause and a list of 10 teams he’ll join without having to waive the clause.
Luke Schenn, Arizona Coyotes
Admittedly, you can tell the market for rental defenders is thin when Schenn makes the list, but that’s the result of parity. Too many teams are still in the playoff hunt for it to be all that realistic to sell off parts with certainty that it won’t come back to bite them. The Coyotes, however, are in no position to be anything but sellers at the deadline, and Schenn might actually give GMs something to think about. Is he a top-pairing defender? Absolutely not. Can he fill in on the second pairing? Possibly in a pinch. But there are teams in the playoff hunt who could use some hands to fill out a third pairing and Schenn can definitely fill that void.
The teams most interested in bringing Schenn aboard, however, are going to be those who want a defender with size and physicality. He’s the kind of player who will rough up opponents and he could be at his very best during a physical series, and it’s not as if Schenn is wholly unfamiliar with playing a larger role. He’s averaged second-pairing minutes across his career and he’s got playoff games under his belt. And with a cap hit of $1.25 million, in terms of deadline targets, he could be a poor man’s Gudbranson.
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